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Rookie federal NDP leader Jack Layton showed off his new shadow cabinet this week — and said goodbye to the chief of staff he hired last week. It may have seemed like a good idea at the recent leadership convention to hire Rick Smith, until two weeks ago Canadian director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, famous for using pretty pictures of baby seals to protest the Newfoundland seal hunt.

But in Newfoundland — where most NDPers supported Layton for leader — the move sparked outrage and predictions of Armageddon in the province when the party has to campaign in the next federal election. And among members of Layton’s inner circle there are lingering concerns about how carelessly the Smith hire took place, how long it took Layton to bow to the inevitable and whether the new leader has made the necessary psychological leap from city councillor to national leader.

It’s hard for Canadians outside Newfoundland — Layton among them, apparently — to understand the emotional intensity surrounding the seal hunt protests, which are gearing up once again as sealers get ready for their yearly trip to the ice floes. Even the Newfoundland-born like me (I still recoil at the memory of the gamey smell when my mother reluctantly cooked seal for my appreciative father) feel a righteous anger at how people there have been portrayed as barbarians. More than any other organization they blame the IFAW, leader of the protest pack.

“The government’s agenda to exterminate seals puts us all at risk,’ Smith said as IFAW Canadian director in a January 14 news release about increased seal quotas, a godsend for cash-strapped Newfoundland fishers.

But that’s the past, a defensive Smith told NOW early this week, trying to hold onto his exciting new job. “I stopped commenting on the sealing issue a week ago. The NDP has a long- established policy on the seal hunt (it’s in favour of a sustainable hunt), and it’s my job to uphold that policy.’

But that didn’t wash with Newfoundland NDPers. Amid a swirl of media controversy, provincial party leader Jack Harris — a Bill Blaikie supporter in the leadership campaign — spoke out this week against the appointment. The Newfoundland NDP executive passed a resolution calling for Smith’s ouster.

Even people who supported Layton in the campaign, like Wayne Lucas, Newfoundland-region president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, condemned the decision of the leader they helped elect. “I think Jack has to be conscious of the feelings of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Hiring Rick Smith is like treason in Newfoundland. I’ve got a message for Jack Layton, the man I supported and the man most Newfoundlanders supported — and that’s to fire Rick Smith.’

Fellow Layton supporter Nancy Riche, a former secretary treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress now retired in St. John’s and busy working on the party’s upcoming provincial campaign, says the controversy has taken the wind out of everyone’s sails. Their pitch was going to be “Vote for two Jacks” (Layton and provincial leader Jack Harris). “Now we’ll have to say Jack Layton is not leader of the Newfoundland NDP.’ There were plans to bring in Layton and Olivia Chow for a March 8 event introducing the party’s women candidates, but that was put on hold.

For a week and a half after his ill-fated staffing decision, Layton tried to ride out the storm by arguing that the only thing that mattered was party policy, not who works in his office. “I’m going to talk to Jack Harris and other people in Newfoundland to get a sense of their concerns,’ he told NOW Tuesday morning, February 4, “and also to discuss with them party policy and my own policy, which has always been in favour of a sustainable seal hunt, and see if there’s a resolution.”

As one day of angry calls gave way to another, it seemed Layton would never get the message. Party member Gene Long, who now lives in Toronto but is a former NDP member of the Newfoundland legislature, says Layton got bad advice. “Unlike the seal hunt, this appointment is not sustainable.’

Trapped between angry Newfoundlanders on one side and making himself look stupid in the eyes of the Ottawa media on the other, Layton kept on trying to conciliate. But having to face the caucus on Wednesday morning, he at last came to his senses — he would eat crow rather than risk choking the party’s chances in Newfoundland. Lesson number one for the new leader: it’s a big country.

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